• The Convergence

1st Place Winner - Junior Category

By Pan Wenbo, National Junior College

“Nature, accordingly, has endowed him, not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of .... ”

Adam Smith, (1790/2010, III, 2.6–2.7) [1]

As Adam Smith sharply pointed out more than two hundred years ago, individuals always, whether consciously or subconsciously, succumb to social expectations due to both the desire for social regard, and ‘a sense of should’ [2].

Most of the time, we follow the social expectation (Five Cs of Singapore, for example) without even realising that we have the power to reject it. Similar to how the superego internalises the normal standard as described by Freud [3], we internalise all the expectations and accept them without any question. However, this internalised set of norms would always conflict with our personal will. (What if I don’t want to get married? What if I want to become a freelancer?) Individuals are trapped in the widening gap between social expectations and their wishes, and this constant tension between personal and social will would place irremovable pressure on individuals. The aggregated impact on society should be what we term ‘social pressure’.

ONE. Mr. and Ms. Kiasus -- social pressure in Singapore local context

The comically exaggerated Kiasu behaviours of Mr. Kiasu, a character in Johnny Lau’s eponymous comic book, made the series once extremely popular in Singapore. His iconic behaviours such as binge eating in buffet perfectly correspond to the definition of kiasu as ‘obsessive concern with getting the most out of every transaction and a desire to get ahead of others’ given by Hwang et al. (2007) [4]

In Singapore, Kiasu-ism has its root in the issue of nation's resource allocation. With limited resources, it is difficult for Singaporeans to achieve material security. Competing for scarce resources (from places in university to jobs to mate choices), people have perpetualised a hyper-individualised society through engaging in hyper-competitions.. Instead of seeing each other as fellow countrymen, others are either objectified as means to access resources, or dehumanised in this rivalrous relationship.

The vicious cycle is clear. A self-oriented society means that whoever can grab the most resources is defined as successful. This social climate in turn places an increasing amount of pressure on individuals, demanding them to engage in this war of resource- snatching. Singaporeans are expected to ‘work hard’ and snatch as many as possible, as this is justified and honoured in a ‘Kiasu society’.

The detrimental effects on Singaporeans’ mental health are not only derived from the pressure caused by the endless conflicts between social expectation and personal will as mentioned above. Most importantly, in an individualised society, people feel unprecedented loneliness. On this island, every man becomes an island.

People argue that this Kiasu spirit leads us to success. If that is the case, what is the difference between this seemingly civilised society and the primaeval pre social ‘state of nature’ described by Tomas Hobbes, where everywhere is in the ‘war of all against all’ (bellum omnium contra omnes) [5]? In my opinion, any form of excellence should not be achieved at the cost of social unity and civility.

TWO. ‘Lying flat’ -- a new way out?

‘Involution’ is a sociology term to describe cultural reforms such as Gothic Architecture: “As the architecture itself has evolved into a rigid form, it can only continue to develop through internal complexity.” (Li, 2021)[6]

The term ‘Nei Juan’ (Involution as in Chinese) has become viral in recent years in Chinese social media to describe the extremely pressurising social environment caused by the hyper-competition due to the large population size and limited vacancies in school and workplaces. Now, the phenomenone of ‘Tang Ping’ (Lying flat) has sprouted in every part of China, as an attempt by the youth to counteract the unhealthy social behaviour of Nei Juan. Through various means, young people demonstrate their refusal to be eembroiled in this hypercompetitive society [7]. And this wave of thought is expected to induce a prolonged impact on this generation of young people -- marked by passivity and lack of enthusiasm in the causes valued in the past [8].

This is an extreme case where individuals intentionally refuse to incorporate social expectations into themselves. As mentioned at the start of the essay,in the explanation of the formation of social pressure, I argued that social pressure only manifests itself when individuals start internalising social norms and expectations, otherwise, social expectations can do no harm to people. By denying the significance of social expectation, the pressure can thus be alleviated.

However, the impact of ‘lying flat’ to Singapore, a tiny island highly dependent on international trade and multinational business, would be detrimental to her progress. With lower productivity of local working forces, foreign companies will find it less attractive to set up and carry out business in Singapore, existing firms may even withdraw from the local market. This is another vicious cycle: with lower material standard of living caused by lowered national income and increasing unemployment, people would be even more pessimistic about their future and less willing to work. This is undoubtedly a deadly blow for the Singapore economy.

THREE. A new form of social narrative -- a new way out!

As some may argue, no expectation, no pressure. However, as Theriault et al noticed, ‘[The] motivation to conform to others’ expectations may be the social scaffolding that makes society possible.’ [9] Certain social narratives, for example, altruism and benevolence, are very vital to society as a form of social construction, which effectively reduces potential disharmony that may occur in the community.

We can replace the pro-individualistic social expectations with pro-community social narrative. Compare the two narratives: ‘work hard for YOUR future’ and ‘work hard for OUR future, the first would exacerbate the pressure by emphasising the individualistic aspect of the society, while the second, would be a very good way to encourage mutual understanding and sense of belonging in a community. In this way, egoism, the real culprit of social pressure, is reduced.


[1] Smith, A. (n.d.). The theory of moral sentiments by Adam Smith 3. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-adam/works/moral/part03/part3a.htm

[2] Theriault, J. E., Young, L., & Barrett, L. F. (2021). The sense of should: A biologically-based framework for modeling social pressure. Physics of Life Reviews, 36, 100–136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plrev.2020.01.004

[3] Freud, S. (1975). Sigmund Freud: Civilization and its Discontents. Hogarth Press.

[4] Hwang, A., Ang, S., & Francesco, A. M. (2002). The silent chinese: The influence of face and kiasuism on student feedback-seeking behaviors. Journal of Management Education, 26(1), 70–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/105256290202600106

[5] Hobbes, T., Krul, W. E., & Tromp, B. (2007). Leviathan. Boom.

[6] Li, C. (2022). From involution to education: A glance to Chinese young generation. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research. https://doi.org/10.2991/assehr.k.211220.320

[7] Liu, Y.-L. (2021, May 14). China's "involuted" generation. The New Yorker. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/chinas-involuted- generation

[8] Collier, J. (2021, September 9). The impact of China's 'lying flat' movement on labor markets. The China Guys. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://thechinaguys.com/youth-lying-flat- movement-impact-labor-markets/

[9] Theriault, J. E., Young, L., & Barrett, L. F. (2021). The sense of should: A biologically-based framework for modeling social pressure. Physics of Life Reviews, 36, 100–136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plrev.2020.01.004



I would like to thank Ms. Zhou Ruoyu, the 2022 Singapore Best Peer Supporter (an annual award given out by me), for her patience and help to this piece of work.